Can There be Objectivity in Pipe Smoking?

Pipe smoking is not an objective pastime. That, I think, most of us can agree upon. In fact, I believe it's the test of the limits of our objectivity that make pipe smoking so enjoyable. We have expectations when we fill a pipe with tobacco, when we apply the first light, and throughout the smoke. As Fred Hanna explored in his interesting essay, The Myth of Briar and Maker, experience and lore conspire to form part of our expectation, and therefore, our subjective experience.

The newcomer to the briar has only lore on which to base his expectations. There is no objective experience that can prepare him for what he's about to encounter. It takes time for the smoker to "learn" to taste tobaccos, to identify the good and the bad in pipe smoking. Our early bowls are rarely satisfying, but we "know," at some level, there's something there, some reason to persist, partly, or even completely, because of the lure of the lore.

In the beginning, we have no objective criteria, no basis for the apprehension and evaluation of our sensory perceptions. (The same is true for wine tasting. Though I liked my first glass of fine wine, it took long and concentrated study to really understand the stuff. Do I enjoy it more as a result? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I'm often envious of those who can find pleasure in a screw-top bottle. I don't have the budget to drink the great first-growths that I have grown to love. Fortunately, there are some excellent "bargain" wines, just as there are some excellent "bargain" pipes.)

Only once our palates become somewhat acclimated to the experience of smoking, can we begin to evaluate things in a slightly more objective manner, but the role of expectation is still very important. If, as a "seasoned smoker," we experience something particular in a new Dunhill, or a new Castello, or a new Genod (three of many brands Hanna mentions in his essay), the memory of that experience will be anchored to and carried along with that pipe. If we experience similar experiences across a larger sampling of a particular brand, we subconsciously begin to formulate the expectation that this brand smokes a certain way. The better our early experiences with a brand, the more likely we are to become devotees, and especially if we are not subsequently disappointed in future smokes.

For some of us, the aesthetic qualities of a pipe play a significant role in the overall experience. How the pipe pleases the eye, how it feels in the hand, the comfort of the stem, play a significant role in our enjoyment. These qualities influence our expectations, to a lesser or greater extent. Some of us feel that we are smoking more than pipes, but works of art. We can not help but find our objectivity compromised by our love of beauty. It's human nature, I think, and pipe smokers are undeniably human.

Perhaps history plays an important role in our expectations and in our experience. When I choose an ancient GBD or a wonderful old Comoy to smoke, I am somehow connected through the smoking of the pipe to its history. (See also my essay, The Soul of the Briar.) How can my appreciation of the history of that pipe not compromise my objectivity? How can I retain a scientist's scrutiny when I am transported to another place and time by the act of smoking a particular pipe?

This deeper connection, however, is not necessarily limited to pipes with long histories. When I smoked my first Heeschen, I was amazed at the quality of the smoke, from first bowl. It was, to my tastes, one of those memorable smoking experiences, colored, of course, by my appreciation for the beauty of the pipe. Today, when I smoke a Heeschen, I can not help but think of the friendship that I have developed with the wonderful man who created the pipe, the great conversations we've had the understanding of HIS love for the briar, and his compassion for the pipe and pipe smokers. For all that, his pipes smoke even better to me today than that first one did. Those pesky expectations rear their heads yet again.

To this point, I've assumed the pipes under our glass meet some minimum requirements of smoking excellence. If the pipe is just bad, no amount of aesthetic, historical or mystical influence will cause us to find rapture in its bowl.

Yet, some smokers get a great deal of pleasure out of a heavily caked Grabow filled with Captain Black. What does their experience have in common with that of those who prefer a rarified briar and a more refined tobacco? While their objective experience may be impossible to quantify, we can gain some insight into their subjective experience through conversation, and may find the reality of these smokers to be not unlike our own, further reinforcing the notion that there is no yardstick upon which taste can be measured.

I've had some memorable smokes that have never been repeated. It's not just the pipe, not just the tobacco, but the part and parcel of set and setting, briar and leaf, that came together to deliver an ephemeral and almost transcendental experience. (I recall a particular smoke; a certain Sasieni one-dot filled with 8 year old Drucquer & Sons' Red Lion. The experience will live in my memory forever, but to date has never been repeated. Then again, memory is a tricky thing, too, isn't it?)

There are a great many myths present in the lore of pipe smoking, including the smoking characteristics of briar of different provenance, the magical qualities of the rare (in fact, non-existent) "Dead Root" briar, the effects of arcane incantations over the wood by some makers, and so on. But, that lore, those myths are part of the romance, and romance, at least to me, is a very important part of the overall experience.

Myth or Fact is of little import, really. What matters is that we enjoy what we smoke, and smoke what we enjoy. If it gives a fellow pleasure to imagine the burl from which is pipe was made struggling in the hot Algerian sun for centuries before finally being captured, and brought to life in the form of the pipe, then so be it.

While I can appreciate the scientific desire to apply a phenomenological approach to the exploration of enjoyment in pipe smoking, I can't help but think that this approach somehow ignores the fundamental reasons I smoke and collect pipes. I have enough "reason" in my life. The "rhyme" of the pipe is the important thing to me. St. Exupry wrote, "What is essential is invisible to the eye."

It's not elitism. It's not science. It's not objectivity. It's romance. The world needs more of that, I think.